School & District Management

Administration Has Big Plans For Small-Schools Initiative

By Erik W. Robelen — February 09, 2000 5 min read

During the end-game negotiations over the federal budget last year, a new education program was born: the small-schools initiative.

Technically, the program, which is designed to help districts restructure large high schools into smaller learning communities, was already on the books, buried in Title X of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But it had never seen a dime.

David R. Obey

All that changed when Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, succeeded in attaching $45 million for the program in the current Department of Education budget. And if the Clinton administration has its way in the proposed budget it was set to unveil this week, the funding will nearly triple next year.

Patricia W. McNeil, the department’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, argues that the research on small schools is compelling.

“The size of the learning environment really creates the conditions for success,” she said.

Among the benefits of smaller schools are an improved school climate, higher attendance rates, less violence, greater individualized attention for students, and higher achievement, according to Ms. McNeil.

"[We’re] providing the seed money for schools to make changes,” she said. The program’s goal is to create learning communities of no more than 600 students, though Ms. McNeil stressed that creating smaller schools should be part of a broader improvement strategy.

The plan has already encountered opposition from at least one leading Republican, however. Rep. Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, issued a statement last month criticizing as “misguided” the administration’s recent announcement that it would seek $120 million for the program in fiscal 2001.

“Next, [the president] will want to be making zoning decisions on where schools should be located,” Mr. Goodling said.

More Than One Approach

The overall trend for more than 50 years has been to create larger and larger schools, either by building them from scratch or consolidating smaller schools. Between 1940 and 1990, the total number of K-12 schools declined by almost 70 percent, while the student population increased fivefold, according to a 1996 report by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory,

The rationale for bigger schools has generally been that they are considered more cost-efficient and can provide students with greater curricular options.

But interest in small schools is growing, from initiatives in districts such as Chicago and New York City to a rapid increase in charter schools, which are typically smaller than traditional public schools.

Though the Education Department is still writing the guidelines for how the small-schools program will work, Ms. McNeil said it would be flexible, allowing different approaches to creating smaller learning communities. For example, she said, school officials might decide to take a 1,500-student school and divide it into smaller clusters or schools-within-a-school, or set up a teacher-advisory system for students to provide more individual attention.

“Separate schools is another option,” Ms. McNeil said, though grants cannot be used for school construction.

But some researchers caution that too much flexibility may lead to diminished benefits, or none at all.

“Schools-within-schools, pods, house plans are administrative arrangements to simulate school size,” said Craig B. Howley, an adjunct professor at Ohio University who has conducted extensive research on small schools. “The problem with simulations is they don’t respect reality.”

An authentic small school can be located within an existing school facility, he said, but it needs a separate space, budget, and faculty, and even a distinctive philosophy.

Others question the wisdom of federal involvement in such matters.

“I don’t understand why this is a federal obligation or federal role,” said Eric A. Hanushek, a professor at the University of Rochester who serves as an education adviser to Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. “When you declare what inputs should be from the federal [level], you’re almost always wrong.”

But Michael Klonsky, the director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues that federal support is needed. “The issue is really a nationwide issue,” he said. “In fact, it’s really becoming a nationwide crisis. ... Our high schools are increasingly becoming warehouses for kids, rather than high-quality learning environments.”

To make the most of the smaller environment, Mr. Klonsky said, districts need to spend more on professional development. “Teachers work differently in small schools,” he said. “They work more collaboratively.”

‘Buy-in’ Needed

The federal initiative is already attracting attention from districts. Olivia L. Watkins, who oversees efforts in the 430,000-student Chicago school system to create smaller high schools, said her district would apply for a grant.

“We’re working on it now,” she said. “We need to reinvigorate our high schools.”

The Chicago district—the nation’s third largest—has used different methods to create smaller learning environments, but the focus of the grant application will be schools-within-a-school, Ms. Watkins said.

While stressing that no final decisions had been made about the size of the competitive grants, Ms. McNeil of the Education Department said the amounts would likely range from $25,000 to $50,000 for planning grants and $250,000 to $500,000 for implementation grants. The goal is to have applications available by April and to issue grants by August or September, she said.

Donald W. Empey, the deputy superintendent of the 30,000-student Glendale Unified School District in suburban Los Angeles, is considering applying for a grant. His system has three high schools that range in size from about 2,700 to 3,500 students.

“‘We’ve looked at various strategies to personalize [them],” including small schools, he said.

The district already has created some career academies within schools. Mr. Empey said the federal initiative might be helpful in expanding that approach. But he cautioned that the district had not restructured an entire high school, in part because it engenders resistance from parents, students, and others.

“That is a rather massive change,” Mr. Empey said. “We have found it difficult to get that kind of buy-in.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2000 edition of Education Week as Administration Has Big Plans For Small-Schools Initiative

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